Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Tuesday Poem - Before The Beginning Of Years by Algernon Charles Swinburne

I first encountered Before The Beginning Of Years in 1980, in Norton's Anthology of Modern Verse. At the time I was a student at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, studying Fine Arts, Latin, Classical Civilization and English. I've kept Swinburne's poem (written in 1856) within arms' reach ever since. As far back as I can remember I've taped it to the walls of my studio - it's probably hung in every studio I've worked in. So saying, I seem to have misplaced it recently and spent some time today trying to find it.

I wrote the poem out way back in the 1980s, using ivory black ink and a long scroll of newsprint. This same scroll was carted from one workspace to the next. In 1985 it hung from a bare curtain rail in the converted tractor shed that doubled-up as accommodation and studio; I was twenty-four at the time, recently graduated and newly married. We - my twenty-five year old husband P & I - started our life together on a remote pig farm in a farming district named Nooitgedacht (back in South Africa this was). As it turned out, we ended up having very little in the way of 'together' time there; six weeks after our wedding, he was called up to the Angolan border to serve time as a medic for the military. I've never quite got my head around that chapter of our story. . . 

Storm Warning I (detail) - lithograph with ink & gesso - CB + Katherine Glenday vessel

Anyway, I spent the next couple of months on my own - well, no, I wasn't entirely on my own. I had my cat, Count Cumulus. I grew veggies, walked, talked to pigs and cows and otherwise spent long, satisfying hours working towards my first solo show. I loved living out there - the huge skies, skudding clouds and wild fecundity of the place. Within a week or two of P's leaving, I discovered I was pregnant. I thrived, deeply content in the knowledge of my growing babe and found myself entranced by the surprise of full breasts and a rounding belly. Everywhere I looked I found rhythms - echoes between my inner and outer landscapes. This short period of productivity and paradise came to an abrupt end after two grueling murders were committed within unsettling proximity of the farm. I decided it would be unwise to stay and, within twenty-four hours of the second death, had packed up my few belongings, my studio materials and cat and moved to the city. The curator of my first-ever dealer gallery kindly offered me her spare rental flat for a few weeks while I hunted for a suitable place to stay. I had an exhibition to produce and was thoroughly nest-y at the time; am not sure what I'd have done had K not stepped in and offered me that temporary shelter. I hung Swinburne's poem on the wall opposite my king-sized mattress in K's very small street-front flat (our mattress lived on the floor in those days). I drew and painted all day, read and played music to my belly at night, ate kilograms of citrus and drank litres of rooibos tea (loose twigs, with honey). 

Before long, I found a small, affordable garden cottage to move into in Randburg (one of Johannesburg's Northern suburbs) and taped Swinburne to the wall behind P's empty - and patiently waiting - desk in the spare back room I'd chosen to make my studio. From there, the same (rapidly-yellowing) scroll moved with me to the shed that became my workspace in our whitewashed home in Kenilworth, Cape Town. Our family had expanded to five by then. In 1994, we moved to New Zealand; the poem came, too, of course. It spent several months on a container at sea (a little like me) and when our belongings arrived and we'd unpacked, I took it down the hill to the second floor studio I'd signed a lease on in George Street, downtown Dunedin. We - the poem and I - settled into that space and stayed there for seven years - we left reluctantly when my landlord decided to double my rent (inner city apartments were becoming The Thing) and I moved on to another place; next came a rather derelict two-roomed studio in a neglected old building at the bottom of Jetty Street. I didn't stay there long - less than two years - but, despite the isolation (the building was tucked under the armpit of an over-bridge in the older, largely uninhabited part of town), my stint in Jetty Street was once of the most productive periods of my working life. In 2003 I moved to the old harbour-side villa I live and work in today. The Swinburne Scroll came with me, of course. I've had it out and up since moving to 22; it's got to be here somewhere. . . 

Here, then, is the poem:


            Before the beginning of years
                There came to the making of man
            Time, with a gift of tears;
                Grief, with a glass that ran;
            Pleasure, with pain for leaven;
                Summer, with flowers that fell;
            Remembrance fallen from heaven,
                And madness risen from hell;
            Strength without hands to smite;
                Love that endures for a breath:
            Night, the shadow of light,
                 And life, the shadow of death.
            And the high gods took in hand
                 Fire, and the falling of tears, 
            And a measure of sliding sand
                 From under the feet of the years;
            And froth and drift of the sea; 
                 And dust of the laboring earth;
            And bodies of things to be
                 In the houses of death and of birth;
            And wrought with weeping and laughter,
                 And fashioned with loathing and love
            With life before and after
                 And death beneath and above,
            For a day and a night and a morrow, 
                 That his strength might endure for a span
            With travail and heavy sorrow,
                 The holy spirit of man.
            From the winds of the north and the south
                 They gathered as unto strife;
            They breathed upon his mouth,
                  They filled his body with life;
            Eyesight and speech they wrought
                  For the veils of the soul therein,
            A time for labor and thought,
                   A time to serve and to sin;
            They gave him light in his ways, 
                   And love, and a space for delight,
            And beauty and length of days,
                   And night, and sleep in the night. 
            His speech is a burning fire;
                   With his lips he travaileth;
            In his heart is a blind desire,
                   In his eyes foreknowledge of death;
            He weaves, and is clothed with derision;
                   Sows, and he shall not reap;
            His life is a watch or a vision
                   Between a sleep and a sleep. 

            Algernon Charles Swinburne (1865)  

Storm Warning II (detail) - Lithograph with ink and gesso - CB

This week's editor on the Tuesday Poem hub is yours truly. I have chosen Ripe Fruit by South African writer Ruben Mowszcowski

You may remember I featured Ruben's searingly evocative poem Karoo Moon on All Finite Things a couple of weeks ago. (Incidentally, Karoo Moon received more reader 'hits' in a week than any other Tuesday poem I've posted. It was interesting taking a look at my stats - something I rarely do. Apparently Stanley Kubrick's The Layers has had 1103 page views since it was posted here on 1 March 2011!)

One reader of Karoo Moon sent me a private message in which he said the poem had startled him, brought him 'back to source', set him back on track. 

Click on the quill to savour Ruben's Ripe Fruit and an exciting selection of poems from around the globe. . .  

Keeping an eye out for fire. . . 


  1. Fantastic Claire - the story you've written here - this poem. What a strong incredible woman you are wrought from all the things described above but full, most certainly, to the brim with LIFE. Thank you for this and for the hub poem from your homeland.

  2. I love this glimpse into your life, Claire. It somehow feels so familiar - maybe because it's yours. We all have so much history.

  3. The poem is not to my taste but your sketch of your life I like very much--fervent with a sense of going forward, the poem as your talisman and home, so to speak.

    Warmest regards from Mim

  4. Dear Mary - thank you. I do appreciate your choice of the word 'wrought'. . . It indicates the process Life is; 'wrought' from and for this life is how it is for us mortals, not so? A recurring combination/application/ministration of flame and heat, of chipping, sanding, welding and refining. Brimming with life is absolutely what YOU do, too! L, C xo

  5. Dear RachvB, I imagine that while some of our history is discreet and unique to us, there is more that's common than foreign to us all - a shared palimpsest/lexicon/archive? Ultimately the intimate and personal seems to lead us all to the Universal where everything is everyone's, and familiar?

    It makes me happy to think of you on your way to Phoenix this week - soft landings to you xo

  6. Dear Mim
    Thank you for continuing to visit and for your welcome candor! The poem is more ecclesiastical in tone than I'd ordinarily favor but there's something about the timeless way it encompasses humanity that I appreciate. I love what you say about the poem being both talisman and home.
    Love to you in Boston, too xo